Tigers in our midst

Wednesday, July 10, 2002

PERRYVILLE, Mo. -- Vincent, Dee, Paul and Perry rough-housed in a pool while T.J. drank in the spray from a garden hose. They acted just like 1-year-olds on a hot Tuesday afternoon.

These Bengal tiger toddlers weigh 400 pounds apiece.

The five tigers moved to Perry County in November. They are living in a spacious, sturdily built, double-fenced outdoor enclosure on private property off a county road while awaiting a move to an as-yet undecided permanent home in the fall. Once there and increasingly exposed to the public, they will become the symbol of the planned Environmental Science Learning Center in Perry County, first announced by DePaul University in 1999.

Tigers were chosen as a symbol because they are an endangered species whose only predator is man. "If we can make the largest predator extinct, what happens to the others?" asked Keith Kinkade, one of the tigers' keepers.

DePaul University President John P. Minogue has put it this way: "The Environmental Science Learning Center is designed to engage the souls of our students with a fire that will not let them rest until this world and its wonderful creatures are protected and nourished."

DePaul plans to construct housing and laboratories where students can pursue studies in biology, environmental science and management in natural surroundings. The building site has not yet been chosen, although the university already is leasing two locations for field studies -- one 450-acre area near Yount, Mo., and 200 acres at Lake Perry.

It plans to begin sending some of DePaul's 21,000 students to the sites next year.

The tigers' names are clues to their bond with Perry County, the Vincentian seminary here, and DePaul, the Chicago, Ill., university founded by the Vincentians.

T.J., a white tiger, is short for Tiger Jack, who is named for Jack Minogue, who attended the seminary in Perryville as a young man.

The five tigers are all members of the same litter. Their mother was a circus animal who ended up at an animal refuge in Arkansas that lacked adequate facilities. The owners called Kinkade and Judy McGee, an Independence, Mo., couple who had experience taking in sick tigers.

The plans for the sanctuary in Perry County were shaping up then, but McGee and Kinkade planned to move here and build the sanctuary before any tigers arrived.

They suddenly found themselves with five 3-week-old tiger cubs.

"They were living in our bathroom and our back yard," McGee said.

When the cubs arrived in Independence, Perry and Vincent both had bad legs and Paul was blind, all due to poor nutrition. They weren't expected to live. Now Paul has 80 percent of his sight back and the two other tigers are completely fit.

"The vets assume they are doing well because there is no stress," Kinkade said.

After a year of living with them, McGee and Kinkade know the tigers' personalities well. T.J. is the dominant tiger and likes to show off. Dee, the only female, is feisty and stalks like a hunter. Paul is friendly and cautious at the same time. Perry is a loner who is more aggressive than the other cats. Vincent is the friendliest, gentlest and least active of the tigers.

The goal has been to socialize the tigers because they will eventually become part of a sanctuary where they will come in contact with the public. They say tigers like to be petted and nurtured.

The tigers "chuff," a low purring sound that seems to be a kind of greeting, and their keepers chuff back.

One acre of freedom

The sanctuary will not be like a wild animal park where animals roam freely. Each tiger will have one acre of freedom, which McGee and Kinkade say will be plenty of room since the tigers won't be hunting.

The sanctuary may include other animals eventually, they said.

McGee and Kinkade built the enclosure themselves with the help of volunteers and the Frank Robinson Construction Co. Because Perry County has no planning and zoning, no permits were required. Because tigers are not native, the Department of Conservation has no jurisdiction. Just about anybody can have a tiger, and McGee and Kinkade say that's a big part of the tigers' problem.

Poaching and loss of habitat are the tigers' biggest threats in the wild. There are 300 or 400 tigers in U.S. zoos but as many as 12,000 tigers are in private hands. Tigers have been known to be used as guards at drug houses.

"We have seen a lot of abused tigers," McGee said.

She and Kinkade operate GREEN, an acronym for Global Resources for Environmental Education and Nature, a nonprofit environmental education organization. They plan to outfit a tractor-trailer so they can take the tigers to schools. The side of the trailer will slide open so the students can view the animals.

'A project with heart'

They are not professional environmentalists. They were involved in various businesses -- construction and property management -- before going into semi-retirement 15 years ago. The first step toward where they are today was just helping big cat sanctuaries raise money. Then they served on the board of directors and eventually began caring for sick cats.

"We were supposed to be taking it easy on some beach somewhere," Kinkade says.

"It's a project with heart and soul," McGee said. "It's an opportunity to educate people about the environment and about an animal that has been neglected and an opportunity to help the animals."

The tigers most people see in circuses are not yet 2 years old and not full-grown because tigers get harder to handle the older and bigger they get. Kinkade is fond of saying they will be able to brush their noses against a basketball goal when they grow up. They will weigh 700 to 900 pounds each.

At this point, McGee and Kinkade can go into the enclosure with the tigers when they're in a tranquil mood. But once the tigers get rowdy, their keepers get out. "It tends to build," McGee said.

They know the day will come when it won't be safe to be inside with the tigers simply because they will be so big and powerful. "No matter what you do, they're going to grow up and be a tiger," Kinkade said.

But, McGee said, "We will always have a way where Keith and I can pet them and touch them without getting in the cage."

The tigers eat 5 to 6 pounds of chicken and beef daily during the summer. The food comes from the same place McGee and Kinkade buy their own -- Wal-Mart.

They sold their 6,000-square-foot house in Independence and are living in an RV parked next to the tigers' housing. The facility includes a kind of den with heating lights that keep it at 75 degrees in the winter.

Some people have been concerned about having dangerous animals in our midst, but McGee points out to them that zoos are safely located in the middle of cities with thousands of people.

Unfortunately, there are people who have tigers in their back yards, she says, and people who buy cuddly tiger cubs as pets. But no one takes a full-grown tiger out for a walk.

"They really don't make good pets," Kinkade said.


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